Author: Ayden Schultz
Imagine, if you will, a desert; a hot, quiet, and beautifully empty desert. Imagine you’re walking in that desert, under the beating sun. You climb one of the many nearby rocky outcroppings to get your bearings. Sweeping your gaze left and right, you see, could it be? There, through the thick haze, a small house. You wonder if it could be a mirage perhaps, a trick of the dehydration. No my friend, you have just happened upon an oasis.
That small house in the desert is Rancho De La Luna, a recording studio in Joshua Tree, California, and it is the birthplace of some amazing music.
Many artists have graced the ranch, but its hallmark act is the Desert Sessions. Desert Sessions is a sort of musical collective or super group formed some 20 years ago by Queens of the Stone Age front man Joshua Homme. The concept is simple: bring a group of talented musicians into the desert and make some music. Such big players as Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan, and PJ Harvey have contributed to Desert Sessions in the past. What results when you put a bunch of experienced musicians in a remote desert house, is many collections of raw, off the wall songs that have a particular charm based on their crudeness. Some of the songs even gave rise to some of Queens of the Stone Age’s greatest hits. Tracks like “Millionaire,” “Make it wit chu,” and “In my Head” all have prototypes that can be found deep in the discography of Desert Sessions. Desert Sessions had been an extraordinary outlet for musical ideas. Many of the tracks born out of the sessions are hit or miss, but that’s part of the appeal. At least that’s how it was up until 2003, when Desert Sessions Volumes 9 & 10 was released. What came after was 16 years of silence.
It’s 2019, and Josh Homme has brought Desert Sessions back from the dead. This time, he’s brought one of the largest and most talented collections of musicians out to the desert with him. Rock legends like Billy Gibbons and Les Claypool have spots on this album, along with many others. There’s a total cast of 11 characters to be exact. After the announcement of this new release, I was sure this was going to be the best Desert Sessions yet, or so I thought.
I began to worry, however, when I began looking through the pre-order options for this album. There were bundles of merchandise, different levels of deluxe packages, and an endless stream promotional art. I thought to myself: “they’re really making this thing commercial now huh.” I had a sneaking suspicion that the raw, rough, demo quality recording Desert Sessions that I knew and loved really was gone. I hoped I was wrong.
So now the album is out, and unfortunately I was at least half-right. Gone are the days of clipping mics and muddy mixes. If the lo-fi style of days gone by was to disappear, I at least hoped that the album would be more cohesive and have an interesting production quality, but I didn’t even get that. Instead, Volumes 11 & 12 lands in the unfortunate middle ground. The raw, minimal, and diverse song writing of volumes past is still present, but it’s also well recorded and produced, and not in a good way. What we get left with is a collection of inconsistent tracks with flat, flavorless production that doesn’t convey the essential rawness that makes Desert Sessions work.
The album starts off interestingly enough with “Move Together”. The minimalist industrial beat and boisterous guitars make it seem like a cleaned up version of a song off of Tom Wait’s Real Gone. “Noses in Roses, Forever” sounds like a B-side to Queens of the Stone Age’s 2017 album Villains, possessing a similar rockabilly aesthetic. Josh Homme’s off kilter vocal performance on this track is enchanting, but it’s backed by bland toned guitars playing forgettable riffs, failing to hold your attention for long. “If You Run” is one of the most disappointing tracks on this album for me, as the song would fit perfectly on an older Desert Sessions record, but its impact is tainted by its lame production. The guitars on the song “Crucifire” sound almost exactly like those on any song by The Hives. This is one of the more poppy songs on the record, and lacks originality and flavor even beyond the guitar riffs and tones. Again, if the production was dirtier, this track could really hit hard, but instead it sounds corny. The song “Chic Tweetz” is weird for the sake of being weird, and is loaded with boomer humor about farts, sh*ts, and sex. “Easier Said Than Done” is an interesting track, in some ways it conjures images of classic Bowie, with its powerful piano chords and strung out vocal performance, but towards the end it evolves into something that sounds like it belongs on Queens of the Stone Age’s 2013 album Like Clockwork.
The album is only 31 minutes and 8 tracks long, which is strange considering the amount of featured artists there are on this album. There really isn’t much room to showcase the talents of each member. Personally, I was expecting and excited to hear some zany bass riffs from Les Claypool on this album, but there were none to be found.
Overall, the songwriting isn’t bad on this album, some of the riffs are good, and it’s definitely listenable. However, the lo-fi charm of Desert Sessions is gone, and it’s replaced with commercial arrogance. The cockiness of the marketing and production conjures high expectations, even though the quality of the song-writing is similar to that of other Desert Sessions volumes. What we were given is accessible and palatable, but is neither what Desert Sessions fans expected, nor what the marketing promoted. I didn’t expect this record to be amazing, but commerciality of it made it seem like it would be. Instead it’s just mediocre.
…And so you walked towards the ranch, expecting to find something gritty and real, but instead the old building evaporates like clear and clean water into the desert daze, and you’re left feeling disappointed, unchanged…